You can find Mariana Salem in one of three places: at the New Museum, where she works as Special Events Director; at the LES Girls Club, where she serves as a member of the board; or running the streets of NYC with Orchard Street Running Club (sometimes for a marathon, sometimes not). Community is a common theme for Mariana: it’s what helped her find her feet after the 2009 recession. This is Mariana’s story on how she left the corporate banking world for a more fulfilling path, how giving back is the best way to receive, and if finding yourself is actually a thing.

“I came to the States from Mexico in 1986 when I was 4-years-old. We moved to suburban Maryland where being different wasn’t embraced, and from a very early age I was aware of this. I remember the subtle discrimination I felt in a predominantly white area—the racial undertones in attitudes towards me and my family, and feeling so misunderstood and disregarded. But that experience influenced the way that I live my life and how I treat other people. It taught me the importance of empathy, and gave me an appreciation for the bigger world that we live in. I think my Mexican identity, and knowing the sacrifices my parents made to move here, contributed to my decision to pursue a career in the banking world. I thought—as a woman, and a Latina—I want to be recognized and accepted. So you can imagine that when I was offered 50K out of school to choose this career path, I immediately said yes, and told myself that this was path to happiness and success. I put in many hours trying to prove myself to others, to the point where I lost sight of what I was actually doing and just going through the motions of everyday life. It was emotionally numbing, for sure.

I think it’s too common for young people to be inspired by the idea of money, power, and titles—believing that they lead to love and acceptance.

Now I look back and see those driving forces left me feeling lost, and ultimately not in line with my inner beliefs. We want so much to be in control of our lives but then challenges arise—like being laid off unexpectedly, which happened to me in 2008. What emerged in that moment was a survival instinct I didn’t know I had, and it drove me to do anything I could to survive in a city that I loved and worked so hard to get to. That kind of thing builds resilience, and gives you the mental ammunition to prepare for other obstacles in life. If you can trust yourself to go through hardship, to let things happen—that’s where you find peace of mind, which is why people shouldn’t be so afraid to fall on their asses. We’re so afraid of failure, of feeling hurt, of feeling rejected—but you need to experience those things in order to grow. We’re so focused on living life on a constant high because we want to avoid pain and vulnerability. But what about when the unexpected happens?

I can look back on all of the hard moments in my life, and feel confident knowing I got through them.

I think everyone should experience failure and disappointment for that reason. Being let go from Bank of America was an opportunity to recognize: this is not who I am. In many ways, with my banking job I was so self-absorbed that I didn’t have room in my mind to pursue passions or interests outside of my career. When something that you think is so important to you is taken away, you’re forced to take a step back and self-reflect.

While working at the bank, I attended an event for Hispanic Heritage month—where El Museo del Barrio, a New York cultural institution celebrating Latino, Caribbean and Latin American Art—came to talk about their mission and what they do. There was something about that presentation that really resonated with me—I thought that if I would have had a cultural institution in my life like that growing up, it would have given me a stronger cultural identity instead of thinking I had to assimilate. Part of why I reacted so strongly was that it triggered this very early memory of being at a museum with my mother, and just remembering how in awe I felt in being in a place of art and creativity. That moment has always stuck with me and it’s one of the reasons why I was drawn to volunteer at the LES Girls Club after I was laid off.

The Girls Club is a community-based organization that provides mentoring, arts and academic and career training programs for underprivileged girls aged 8–23. Most of these girls don’t have the economic means to take extracurricular activities, or to properly explore their interests. Those childhood experiences, like the one I had at the museum, can really shape who you are. For there to be an organization that encourages girls to create, use their imaginations, and really just be themselves is so profound in their development. It’s important for these girls to be surrounded by women they can look up to, and to have experiences they could not have had otherwise. I’ve worked with a mentee since 2009, and watched her grow from an awkward, quiet 7th grader to this young woman who is finishing her first year in college. I would tell her: know that your experience may not have been the easiest,

but there’s nothing more beautiful than standing up for what you believe in.

I know that her life is different because of the Girls Club, and I hope that it’s different because of my opportunity to mentor her. My involvement with the club has taught me that giving can bring a sense of satisfaction. That’s really what it comes down to. Realizing that there is always going to be someone who has less than you, and giving back in that situation makes you appreciate your own life. You get perspective through helping others, which is why I think it’s so important for individuals to give back. I don’t think people do it enough, and there are so many ways in which people can give a bit of their time and money to do so.

I find happiness comes from the simplest things.

It’s the basics: Learning to listen to myself. Not relying on anyone else to bring me happiness. Living in this city, which, as much as it can be exhausting, is a privilege which people would kill for. I can walk (or sometimes run) around this city and can find inspiration by people and spaces around me. I have access to art and music that further drives my inspiration. I’m not really driven by money or material things. I left all of that, and make a lot less than I used to. It’s less about being an influencer and more about being genuine and relating to others—that’s what makes life fulfilling. I’ve taken plenty of trips where I’m like, ‘I’m going to go find myself.’ But you know what?

It happens on a random day when I’ll be walking down the street, and have a burst of self-reflection and think: life is good.

The beauty of getting older is that you have an increased sense of mortality, and that further puts things in perspective. We think we are going to live forever, and sometimes it takes that moment of realizing—actually, this is temporary. That whole notion of finding yourself is really being present in the moment. It’s not like, OMG I see the light. It’s just, I’m here right now. And that to me is everything.”

Mariana’s #OKREALTALK Tips

  • Don’t be afraid to fall on your ass.
  • Finding yourself is not an activity. It happens when you least expect it.
  • You need to go through the bad to get to the good.

b. 1982

New Museum
LES Girls Club

i. @msalem

As told to Amy Woodside, May 2015